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Rafael Buelna Tenorio, 23 de mayo 1891 – 23 de enero de 1924

23 May 2012

Rafael Buelna Tenorio’s birthday isn’t on everyone’s calendar as a day to celebrate, but at least the Autonomous University of Sinaloa always remembers him… even though he was never one of their students. 

He was a Sinaloan, however, and one who forgot what it means to be a dedicated student… inside and outside the classroom to take up the causes of their time and their country, and embrace the challenge of creating a better tomorrow for us all. 

GENERAL Rafael Buelna Tenoria, 1915.

Even in his mid-twenties, Rafael Buelna was one of those guys who would have been carded if he’d tried to buy a six-pack… if they’d carded people, and they sold six-packs in 1915.  But don’t let the looks deceive you.  He may have looked like an innocent kid, but was anything but.

Having been expelled from a Jesuit high school in Culiacán for organizing student demonstrations against the Porfirian state governor in 1909, he worked as a cub reporter for the Mazatlan Correo de la Tarde, headed the Democratic Club (the local pro-Madero organization) .  Making the news as a protest organizer, as well as reporting on it, led  local Porfirians “suggesting” that maybe Rafael wasn’t cut out for the news trade.  At least in Mazatlán.

He was working in Guadalajara for La Gaceta and had started to take a few evening classes to qualify for entry into the University.  His prospects looked better in Mexico City, where he moved in mid 1910, just Madero’s campaign was becoming a genuine threat to Don Porfirio’s long reign, and a revolt became inevitable.   Diaz was still clinging to power in January 1911, when Buelna found his baby-faced innocent looks could be a came in handy.

Not too many people had cars in those days, and besides, Buelna didn’t look old enough to drive.  So, no one would have thought anything if a harmless looking twit with his compadre Enrique (Estrada), wanted to rent a car and driver to go out on a picnic.   That they had to make a few stops to pick up various boxes around town might have raised the driver’s suspicions, but, both Buelna and Estrada were well-dressed and well-spoken, so he just didn’t say anything.  A couple of nice enough lads… until Buelna pulled a pistol out and hijacked the car.     Having picked up arms and ammunition stashed around the Capital, they were headed for Estrada’s home town of Tepic.  The Revolution could always use another guerilla unit, and Estrada had some contacts in Tepic.

Leaving the chauffeur  in Toluca shouting “¡Viva, la revolucíon!” (supposedly the driver considered the lost wages — and his boss’ limo — a suitable donation to the cause… but he did try to hit up President Madero for the unpaid fare a few months later), the pair put themselves, their weapons (and their snazzy new limo) under the command of Martin Espinoza, who immediately conferred the rank of Colonel on Buelna… and proceeded to overthrow the local administration around Tepic (at the time, a territorial division of the State of Jalisco).  With Madero’s revolt having toppled Porfirio’s regime, Buelna returned to Culiacán and his not-quite completed Jesuit high school classes.

I wonder if the Jesuits had to tell the colonel not to smoke in the Boy’s Room, and how they handled it… according to José C. Valdéz, who in 1937, wrote his memoirs of the Revolutionary general [i]who had boarded with his grandmother during his stint in Mazatlán, Buelna was one of those bad boys who smoked, and was the one buying the beer (no wonder he was a popular officer!)

While Buelna did finish his high school classes, and, was preparing for a legal career, the counter-revolution of 1913 again interrupted his studies.  Back under his old commander, Martin Espinosa, Buelna was again a cavalry colonel.   Alas, political ambitions among the various leaders in the Constitutionalists over tactics and aims (and their eventual place in a post-revolutionary pecking order) led to dissension and eventual split in the leadership:   Buelna ending up in Pancho Villa’s Division of the North, promoted to General.

Buelna is the only one in the front row without a mustache.

While Alvaro Obregón was fighting his way down the west coast, Buela and his faction managed to capture Tepic (again).   Youth and enthusiasm sometimes trumps age and cunning.  The guy was STILL trying to finish his formal education, so I guess this could be called the ultimate internship:  Buelna was installed as political chief of the Tepic Territory .  The wily Obergón, sought to limit Villa’s power, but left Tepic out of his own plans to control Jalisco, effectively leaving Buelna as governor of what would, in 1917, become the State of Nayarit.

While all Buelna was trying to do was finish his education, he was loyal to his commander, becoming in Villa’s words, the “gold nugget” of his Army.  Buelna, as a General (and a Territorial governor) took an active part in the Convention of Aguascalientes. He might be called “the kid,” but he was highly respected for his acumen and skill at synthesizing the arguments put forth by the various factions.  Obregón — who was not at the Convention, but was in contact with the delegates.  In his drive to destroy Villa, Obregón avoided taking on Buelna, not so much because he considered the 24 year old general a military threat, as because he gambled that the still very young political and military jefe would be more valuable within his own “revolutionary family” than outside it.

While also a dedicated revolutionary, he had married Luisa Sarría.  Luisa was a revolutionary herself, and all in favor of Rafael’s political activity, but she’d like it if he stayed alive.  Following Villa’s defeat at the Battle of León, and not ready to make his peace with Obregón, Rafael and Luisa moved to the United States, where he could, at the very least, finish his studies.

The couple returned to Mexico in 1919, and — although still active in politics — more of less settled down to run a store and, for Rafael, to practice law.  The attempt by Venustiano Carranza to hang onto the Presidency after the expiration of his term brought Rafael back into the field, and feeling Obregón was betraying the Revolution, was one of those generals who joined the Delahuertista Rebellion of 1924.  Serving under his old Mexico City compadre and partner in car-jacking, Enrique Estrada, Buelna captured another youthful general, Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio.  Military enemies to be sure, and under the barbaric rules of engagement of the time, Buelna should have had Cardenás shot.  The two had too much in common.  Cardenás’ education had been interrupted by his father’s death, and had joined the revolution at 16, and — like Buelna — had been given military and political power while still very young (and chafed somewhat as being called “kid” by their peers and even their subordinates).  And both were idealists who saw in the Revolution the best hope for the rising generation of Mexicans.  It was only chance that the two had chosen to serve under different leaders.

Buelna of course released Cardenás, who in the course of his long and productive life never spoke ill of the “gold nugget,” who was killed a few weeks later by a sniper at the age of 32.

“Rafael Buelna”… mural in the Ayuntamiento of his home town of Mocorito, Sinaloa


[i] Rafael Buelna: La Caballerías de la Revolutión.  Culiacán:  Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas y Sociales Universidad Autónomia de Sinaloa, 1937, rep. 2009.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. Gary Smith permalink
    23 May 2012 6:22 pm

    With all due respect, It is “Lázaro Cárdenas”,with accents on the first syllable of each name. This in no way diminishes my enjoyment of your prolific informed commentaries and histories.

    • 23 May 2012 7:31 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, but misplaced accent marks are the sort of thing that annoy me, more so when I don’t notice them until months later. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. 11 June 2012 8:40 pm

    thanks for this… rafael buelna is my great, great, great uncle and enjoyed this… gracias.
    gabriel e. serrato-buelna
    laguna beach, california

  3. Carlos Sandoval permalink
    9 March 2013 8:25 am

    There is a mistake in Tenoria. The right word is Tenorio with an ¨”o” not an “a”

    • 9 March 2013 9:45 am

      How’d that happen? Thanks!

      • 4 October 2014 10:23 am

        My grandfathers father was the brother of Rafael Buelna it does say a lot about him on the Internet but we have a book of all the Buelnas in history
        And he is there my grandfather was named after him

      • Jasmin Buelna permalink
        24 August 2016 8:34 pm

        For sure that’s my great grandfather

  4. Nohemi Buelna permalink
    6 April 2016 6:37 pm

    Loved reading this. He was my grandfather’s uncle so it was nice to read up on a relative who did so much. Thanks!

  5. alan knight permalink
    15 May 2016 2:38 pm

    thanks for the info – love the Mocorito mural (have never seen it): Alan Knight (British historian of the Mexican Revolution(

  6. 29 January 2017 12:50 pm

    Thank you very much for this nice text on Rafael Buelna. I have been reading “The Eagle and The Snake”, by Martín Luis Guzmán, and searching for additional information, and when General Buelna appeared in it I made a search and I found your note. Guzmán’s opinion of Buelna matches yours.

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